How best to explain the Kremlin’s spectacular mishandling of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny? 

At first glance, Navalny’s arrest at a Moscow airport on Sunday looks like an irrational and self-injurious overreaction. The Kremlin’s move all but guarantees a new wave of protests inside Russia. For years, the Kremlin had tried to treat Navalny like a run-of-the-mill nuisance. Now it has transformed him into something of a folk hero for a growing number of Russians.

Yet beneath the surface, the failed assassination and the dramatic arrest of an endlessly combative yet media-savvy opponent of the Putin regime reveal a different storyline. For quite some time, it has been commonplace to talk about Kremlin decisionmaking as though Russia’s leadership were a monolith. It isn’t. Nor is the Russian ruling elite all that cohesive. When it comes to the Navalny case, its ranks are deeply split—in ways that have all too often been ignored. 

There are three main schools of thought about Navalny within the Russian leadership. The first (and by far the most powerful) is the simple, hardline approach of the siloviki, the people who run Russia’s sprawling security apparatus. For them, Navalny has for a long time been a threat to Putin’s regime. But now he has become also an enemy to be demonstratively destroyed, at least politically. The bombshell investigations revealing the role of the FSB (the Federal Security Service—the main successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB) in the attempt to kill Navalny have turned the entire “affair” into a personal grudge match. Getting revenge is now a matter of principle. Accordingly, Navalny should be not only jailed, but humiliated and crushed. 

For these figures, Navalny also embodies the threat from the Kremlin’s many Western adversaries, which is why the authorities now claim that Navalny is an instrument of foreign intelligence agencies and merely part of their elaborate efforts to destroy the Putin regime. Treating the struggle against Navalny as part of an all-out war precludes any need for empathy, compromise, or the consideration of political niceties, let alone of the impact on Russia’s international image. Under this logic, there is no point in heeding the ignorant views of Russian or international public opinion. Instead, the only way to deal with these kinds of threats is with cold-blooded, military-style operations. Such activities, by necessity, sit outside the realm of domestic politics or even the polite niceties of international affairs.

There is a second school of thought in the ranks of the presidential administration team that is responsible for the country’s domestic political situation. For them, the best outcome would have been for Navalny simply to remain in Germany. They want no part of actions that are likely to trigger protests, to exacerbate the simmering conflict between the authorities and the more progressive segments of Russian society, or to add to the burdens of managing the fallout from the pandemic and the run-up to the Duma elections in the autumn. 

The problem is that the overseers of domestic politics have been sidelined from dealing with the non-systemic opposition in recent years. After the short-lived Moscow street protests in summer 2019, that role was passed over entirely to the security agencies. As to their logic: any and all anti-Putin activities within society are now to be considered criminal. A raft of new initiatives makes clear that this approach can count on robust administrative and legislative support. These efforts represent an overall toughening of the regime and make abundantly clear that it will be the FSB, not the spin doctors inside the Kremlin, who will be ultimately responsible for calculating what types of political risk are tolerable. That leaves the members of the presidential administration in a subordinate and largely technical role: to assist the FSB and contribute to the implementation of its decisions about Navalny and other members of the non-systemic opposition.

The third school of thought is perhaps the most interesting—yet least influential on day-to-day policymaking. For months, representatives of various business interests, state corporations, industrial giants, and banks have held out hope that the worst-case scenarios for their parochial agendas could be avoided. Even though most of those organizations are managed by people close to Putin, they generally are eager to avoid a new wave of confrontation with the West. Unfortunately for them, the Kremlin’s brute-force handling of Navalny all but guarantees that the United States and its allies will pursue policies heavy on sanctions and other forms of pressure. 

Some members of this cross-section of the Russian elite are rightfully worried that the Kremlin’s treatment of Navalny may end up being even more dangerous to the stability of the regime than Navalny himself. Back in August 2019, Sergei Chemezov, the CEO of the massive state corporation Rostec, criticized the authorities (very gently, of course) for not allowing real members of the political opposition to run in elections. According to Chemezov’s line of thinking, it’s better to bring the opposition into the fold and ease them into the system. But Putin has little patience these days for such logic or the people close to him who promote it.

The Kremlin’s approach to Navalny is a natural by-product of a political regime that is losing its ability to dispassionately analyze pros and cons or to reach consensus-driven decisions. Instead, the initiative and locus of most decisionmaking that concerns the real opposition or any criticism has shifted to the FSB, with occasional input and guidance from Putin. The siloviki don’t care about winning elections or catering to the public mood. In their understanding, their key task is ensuring political stability and stifling any expression of popular unhappiness by any and all available means. For years they have been fighting tooth and nail against individual members of the opposition. Now they have shifted their tactics to a war against any and all manifestations of discontent. 

In the absence of meaningful resistance from within elite circles or society at large, the siloviki will be inevitably tempted to press their luck and go even further than they have with Navalny. That means a no-holds-barred approach to Navalny’s team and a further crackdown on internal threats to the regime, real or imagined. Navalny himself may even be charged with treason

Yet such possibilities are largely technicalities at this point. The real question is whether anyone in Putin’s orbit will dare to question the FSB’s steamroller approach. The same goes for progressive segments of Russian society and the elite, as well as the remaining quietly dissenting voices within the country’s leadership ranks. In the end, Navalny’s imprisonment risks creating an enormous burden for the regime. Either it becomes ever more repressive and coercive. Or it loses its nerve and faces unpredictable political consequences.

  • Tatiana Stanovaya